Review: Rob Brydon and other starry names in Future Conditional at the Old Vic
Review: And Then Come The Nightjars, Theatre503

Review: Simon Stephens' elegiac A Song From Far Away, Young Vic

SongFromFarAway_326x326When the lights came up in the auditorium at the end of A Song From Far Away, all I could say to Poly was 'fuck'. It's not a bad thing, far from it. It was a symptom of how Simon Stephens' new play left me feeling emotionally fragile and struggling to articulate just how it made me feel.

Talking to Simon Stephens afterwards (she writes casually like it wasn't a big thing when it was a massive thing) he described it as a sketch and was worried that as a result it wasn't powerful enough. It's what gave it power for me: it's a haunting, emotional ghost of a story about a man whose life is haunted, who is himself a metaphorical ghost living a hollow, disconnected, gossamer existence.

Eelco Smits plays Willem who buys and sells things for a bank in New York. During a Sunday work meeting he gets a phone call from his mum to say his brother Pauli is dead and he needs to come home to Amsterdam.

The story of his journey home, facing what he left behind many years earlier and dealing with the emotional carnage of bereavement is told in a series of letters he writes to Pauli. There are hints of Willem's past and his relationships but when everyone is grieving can anyone be deemed a reliable narrator?

Willem is a runner, not in the physical sense but he runs away; he has run away. He avoids contact choosing to stay in a hotel rather than with his parents, a hotel favoured by immigrants travelling to the New World. He drinks too much and has casual sex and all seems to be a half-hearted attempt to connect with others, with life:

"For one moment it felt like everything was happening in the present tense."

And yet he is a keen observer of the things and people around him. The irony and perhaps the tragedy of the piece is that the one person he seems to want to connect with, an old boyfriend, has moved on. In the main he is controlled perhaps to the point of numbness. His family interpret it as aloofness, a lack of care but the raw emotion is there and we see it. At one point he is angry at Pauli for putting him through it all, making him face life and perhaps too his own existence.

There are threads of simple pleasures - eating his mum's roast chicken - but in the main there is growing feeling of futility and insignificance.

"We are all born. We all die. It's nothing. It is not worth commenting on."

Ivo Van Hove's direction of Eelco Smits solo performance is a masterclass of subtlety and nuance. Willem rarely makes eye contact with the audience, always looking off into the distance as if he's only half there. He strips himself naked as if showing us, physically at least, who he is and when he dresses again and returns to New York his final act in the play shifts our interpretation. It isn't a moment necessarily of Stephens' imagination - there are no stage instructions in the playtext.

A Song From Far Away is a beautiful piece of poetic writing that is directed and performed with masterly skill. It completely took my breath away and still haunts me.

It is a joint production with Toneelgroep Amsterdam and you can catch it at the Young Vic until September 19. It is an hour and 15 minutes without an interval.


You can have the Simon Stephens-Birdland-Andrew Scott-Cock as the immediately obvious one but what is far more fun is Ivo Van Hove is going to be directing Mr W in The Crucible next year on Broadway.